Let's start the teaching revolution

6th August 2010 at 01:00

These are interesting times in Wales. In the main we are a nation that in education - as in other public service areas - has turned itself away from market-led, consumer choice driven approaches, be they either New Labour or ConLib inspired. We favour egalitarian, public-sector provided and community-based comprehensive approaches to education.

While it seems unlikely that this consensus will change in the new political environment that we now find ourselves in, we cannot afford to be complacent about our educational performance. The outcomes of Wales' first participation in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) in 200607 reminded us that while as a country we could point to reasonably impressive gains in student attainment over the previous decade, in UK and international terms we were not a high performer.

Inevitably, therefore, the outcomes of Pisa 200910 will be awaited with interest and, given the indicators we already have from national assessment and examination data, with some trepidation. In particular, it is likely that again the extent to which socioeconomic background influences educational achievement in Wales will be starkly apparent.

How should we respond now and when the Pisa outcomes are known? Clearly the ongoing development of the School Effectiveness Framework must continue to be seen as the best response we can make: using the powerful knowledge base it contains on how system-led improvement can impact upon educational performance.

The development of SEF began three years ago following the first Pisa outcomes for Wales and resulting from the commitment made in "The Learning Country: Vision Into Action" document from the Welsh Assembly government in 2006. Bringing about whole system change, getting the thinking right and taking the educational community on the journey, takes time. It has been right that SEF has developed incrementally and not been imposed top- down as so often has been the way of things, for example, in England.

At the heart of SEF and of the wider knowledge we have on how to improve educational systems and student achievement is the importance of teaching, the single most potent influence of all. Increasingly we know that if we are to achieve the highest quality of teaching in our classrooms and schools we have to empower teachers with the most effective learning and teaching strategies.

Hereby lies a dilemma, and it is the one that SEF has to face up to and overcome if it is to succeed. For a complex variety of reasons, teaching remains a profession where it is often difficult to change classroom practice. It remains a profession where its members exercise a significant degree of choice as to how they teach and their students learn. Often the methods used are highly individualised, based on what might best be described as "craft knowledge" rather than a body of research evidence, and are rarely changed or adapted.

Some would argue that this is a strength of the teaching profession: others would suggest that it is a significant weakness, to the extent that it makes teaching actually very unlike other professions where precise bodies of knowledge define professionalism.

This is where we should now take the debate on school effectiveness and improved student achievement in Wales. Our starting point must be to confidently assert that we increasingly have these bodies of knowledge on effective learning and teaching practice available to us.

To take one instance: the work of John Hattie. He has looked at more than 800 major research studies on student achievement and has developed a metric in order to measure the effect size of the learning and teaching strategies deployed. Some may challenge his methodology, but his results are fascinating and suggest powerful knowledge that all teachers should become familiar with. By comparison to Hattie's findings, approaches to learning theory (such as Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic) and emotional intelligence appear even less well founded than we know them to be.

It is this kind of knowledge and practice that we have to embed in SEF so that it sounds less like a set of laudable ambitions and more a precise, scientific process for changing practice and outcomes.

There is, of course, one health warning that should be applied. This cannot be done through some form of national prescription. Not just because that would undermine the very teacher professionalism that we are attempting to strengthen, but even more profoundly because we know from previous attempts, this simply won't work. The key will be to make what we know and which, in the best instances is already present in our classrooms and schools, viral so that it spreads rapidly throughout our system.

Revolutionising the practice of teaching in our schools is what we now have to do to make SEF the answer to the challenges we face and to ensure that we have both the egalitarian and high performing education system that we seek.

David Egan is professor of education at the University of Wales Institute Cardiff.

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